Evan Hansen may be the title character of Broadway’s latest smash hit, but as Heidi Hansen, Rachel Bay Jones sings the first line of Dear Evan Hansen’s stirring score written by Tony nominees (and Oscar winners) Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.
“Moms—and moms of a certain age—we’re forgotten a little bit. We’re forgotten in the lives of our kids, we forget ourselves,” says Jones. “So to have these writers make sure that the voice of these two middle-aged women [Heidi and Cynthia] is strong and present and immediate out of the gate is something that I feel they are doing for all of us. To shine a spotlight on [their pain] is both uncomfortable and necessary.”
Jones’ path in this industry can be described in the same way. “I’ve had a real struggle with audition anxiety and panic,” she confides. “I’m really great at auditioning for a nervous wreck.” Yet, as her wrenching performance at the Music Box shows, she is a necessary talent in theatre.
A turning point in her career came with the birth of Jones’ own daughter 14 years ago. “Something clicked inside of me that made me finally grow up and be ready to be bigger than I was,” says Jones of overcoming her discomfort. “Something happens when you’re responsible for the life of another human being: Your own insecurities seem really small in comparison to this huge responsibility that you have. It freed me up to think like an artist again.”
Jones brings every piece of herself and an uncompromising truth to her performance, particularly in her solo “So Big/So Small,” in which Heidi confesses her inadequacies as a mom to her son. As Jones sings “I knew there would be moment that I’d miss/And I knew there would be space I couldn’t fill/And I knew I’d come up short a million different ways/And I did/And I do/And I will,” she breaks open onstage.
“One of the great griefs that all mothers share is that we will never be the mother that we want to be,” says Jones. “There’s an immediate sense of loss that we can all tap into as soon as we give birth and take on the mantle of motherhood.
“To have the responsibility to shape another person and send them away from you…” Jones trails off. “It’s too big.”
Jones relates viscerally to her character, and it reflected in the first table reads, as she built Heidi and navigated moments with co-star Ben Platt. “All these truthful moments that have arisen in this scene [“So Big/So Small”] and in others, they were naturally born,” says Jones.
And audiences are responding to Jones’ emotional authenticity. “Mothers are responding to this—women and children—adult children are responding to it,” says Jones. “They’re saying, ‘I get it. I’m looking at my mother a whole other way.’”